Remember all those books you were supposed to read in high school or maybe even college? Intimidating tomes like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations and Gulliver’s Travels that you were likely too young or busy or lazy to really care about? Of the above three I’ve only read the first, and I was an English major!
That’s why I was so excited to read Karen Swallow Prior’s just released memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012).
In it, Prior, who chairs the English and Modern Languages Department at Liberty University, tells the story of growing up in a farmhouse in Monmouth, Maine, where bedtime stories were part of her family tradition long past the age when she could read to herself; of how books made her world seem bigger and her life freer than the small school where she got bumped from one clique to another; and how they ultimately led her toward understanding the meaning of love, the waste of a selfishly lived life, and the danger of isolating one’s faith.
All this Prior learned by following the advice of poet John Milton to promiscuously read books, which her parents let her do without limits.
“Discovering truth is a process that occurs over time, more fully with each idea or book that gets added to the equation,” Prior writes in chapter one. “Sure, many of the books I read in my youth filled my head with silly notions and downright lies that I mistook for truth, but only until I read something else that exposed the lie for what it was. The irony is that protecting a child from a lie by suppressing the lie only ends up protecting the lie, too. Lies die fastest when exposed to the light of truth.”
Each chapter chronicles a phase or event in the author’s life while weaving in information from a classical book that helped inform it. From Charlotte’s Web to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Prior introduces some of Western literature’s greatest authors and works and while reflecting on her own rapidly expanding life. I wish every high school and college student could read Prior’s chapter on Madam Bovary and romantic love.
“In seeing Emma, I simply saw myself,” Prior writes. “I sought excitement. I thought love meant eternal excitement and unfluctuating passion. I didn’t recognize my romanticism for what it was: discontentment with what is, caused by pining for what isn’t. I didn’t know the difference between a real person and my idealized version of a person. Madame Bovary changed my worldview. It made me realize that happiness is in here, not out there. That the imperfect love of a real person is far greater than the perfect love that exists only in fairy tales or movies. That living happily ever after begins with embracing real life—not fleeing to fantasies—today.”
Whether you’ve ever wished you could take a course in classical literature or in understanding yourself, Booked is a great place to start.
When I finished, I was so eager to embark on my own life of promiscuous reading, that I immediately plucked Great Expectations from my oldest son’s bedroom floor and snuck it into my room–only to have him snatch it back. Looks like I’ll have to wait my turn!